As anyone who has worked on component technologies can tell you, the time in which you should treat your product as something that can stand on its own is limited. The tricky part is figuring out when that transition should occur—and that's where people in product marketing and product management can really earn their paychecks.
"Just give me what I want, even if I don't know what I want"
Collaboration-ish, social media-esque technologies will reach that point. But is it here yet? One company in this business, Jive, seems to think so. Their Social Business Software (SBS) suite bundles discussions, social tagging, blogs, and other capabilities in what used to be a smorgasbord of capabilities. Pass down the line and fill your plate with whatever components you want to consume.
Of course, this model presupposes that you know what you want. Unlike Swedish meatballs and macaroni salad, you may not know your own taste for dashboards, polls, and document collaboration, which may be as mysterious to some users as the menu at an Eritrean restaurant's lunch buffet. And if you can't decode the menu for yourself, you certainly can't be trusted to pick out the right components for other people.
That's the cue for some companies to switch their product strategy and marketing approach from products to solutions. Instead of the befuddling list of 100 items, just package related components into the Meat Lover's Special, or in the case of Jive, "solution architectures" like Employee Engagement.
"Give it to me when I want it, even if I can't tell you when that will be"
Without giving a thumbs up or down on Jive's specific approach, they provide a good example of how important this timing issue can be. If Jive were to wait too long with a solutions strategy, the market might pass them by. Competitors with inferior products might do a better job of explaining how to use them, which will attract users and customers like iron filings to a magnet.
On the other hand, Jive might jump too early into the solutions business, with tragic results. When you start thinking less about generic technology, and more about specific use cases, you make product roadmap and feature design decisions much differently. For example, if you want to capture the medical records market, you can't just build a generic approach to roles and privileges. You have to design access control lists and other security components in a way that will serve how practitioners and patients share information with insurance companies.
Unfortunately, back when HIPAA first started getting momentum, some companies tried to steal a march on their competitors, but they marched swiftly in the wrong direction. As it turns out, there wasn't a single correct way to conform with HIPAA privacy guidelines; instead, organizations had the latitude to figure out the HIPAA puzzle in their own ways. Instead of bringing to market a one-size-fits-all "HIPAA solution," these vendors had built themselves a one-size-fits-none straitjacket. Oops.
"In other words, your job depends on reading my mind"
Product marketers and product managers, therefore, are a key resource in technology companies for seeing over this horizon. Is the technology well-enough understood, and widely-enough adopted, that the shift to a solutions strategy is imminent? If so, which among several different solutions is the one that will generate the most business?
These are questions with huge ramifications, beyond just next quarter's sales. For example, a small company that has done a great job building a best-in-class component technology may be ripe for acquisition. Or, it may be kidding itself about the possibility of finding a buyer, if bigger companies don't see the kinds of solutions into which these components will fit.
Clearly, a group of smart people sitting around a conference table aren't going to reach the ultimate answers. Research into a combination of technical and business issues will be necessary–which, again, is the raison d'etre of the PM team.
[By the way, this week's podcast, to be posted soon, features an interview with Mike Marfise of Jive. We don't talk about this particular issue, but Mike has a lot of interesting things to say about a particular solution area, innovation.]